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Health threat of climate change demands urgent action: AMA


The world has been warned that there needs to be a massive improvement in efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions if a catastrophic increase in global temperatures is to be averted, underlining AMA calls for detailed planning to address the health effects of climate change.

In a wake-up call for governments, businesses and communities worldwide to intensify efforts to cut air pollution, the UN-appointed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that global greenhouse gas emissions would have to be cut by between 40 and 70 per cent of 2010 levels by 2050 in order to limit the temperature rise caused by human activity to less than two degrees Celsius.

The IPCC warned that if action was postponed until 2030, the two-degree target would be beyond reach unless radical techniques to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, such as massive tree planting programs and carbon capture technology, were used.

Coming on top of an earlier IPCC report highlighting the likely health effects of climate change, the latest study has reinforced the AMA’s warning that urgent, concerted action is needed to cut greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.

“The AMA has long highlighted the likely adverse health effects of climate change from increased emissions,” AMA Vice President Professor Geoffrey Dobb said. “Australia has experienced a high number of damaging extreme weather events such as cyclones, bushfires and floods in recent years, with many deaths and lasting effects on human health, both physical and mental.”

The IPCC predicts health problems will become more acute in the next 40 years as the frequency and intensity of deadly and destructive heatwaves, droughts, fires and storms increase, increasing the spread of diseases and affecting food production.

In a report released last month, the Climate Council said heatwaves had become the nation’s most deadly natural disaster, causing hundreds of “private, silent deaths” at a time.

The Council reported that since 1950 the number of record hot days had doubled, and maximum and minimum temperatures had risen by around 0.9 degrees Celsius.

It said that during the heatwave that struck Melbourne in late January 2009 alone, there were 374 deaths reported in excess of seasonal average, while a separate study of Adelaide health data between 1993 and 2006 found hospital admissions spiked 7 per cent higher during heatwaves, while the proportion of people needing ambulance transport jumped 4 per cent.

Professor Dobb said the Federal Government needed to take “strong and effective” action to deal with the health effects of climate change, calling for the development of a National Strategy for Health and Climate Change.

“We need to act now to reduce both the human and economic costs of climate change on health,” he said.

The Abbott Government is attempting to overturn Labor’s regime for putting a price on carbon pollution and replace it with its “direct action” policy.

The IPCC has warned governments worldwide that they need to significantly increase their emission reduction targets if global temperatures are to rise by no more than two degrees Celsius.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt told the ABC the Government would consider further emission reduction targets next year, depending on what other countries do.

Regardless, Professor Dobb said the country needed to prepare itself to respond to the health effects of climate change.

The AMA has recommended that a National Strategy for Health and Climate Change include the development of local disaster management plans, the establishment of strong and active communication links between hospitals, medical centres, local weather forecasters and emergency response agencies, and plans to help the vulnerable and those who live in remote areas.

Professor Dobb said measures should be put in place to prevent the establishment and spread of exotic diseases, including better surveillance of dangerous arboviruses.

He said preparations also needed to be made for the likely the temporary and permanent dislocation of people because of natural disasters and economic changes.

The AMA said attention needed to be paid to improving the education and awareness of doctors and other health professionals about the links between climate change and health, and the effects extreme weather and natural disasters could have on mental health.

Adrian Rollins